Recently, I’ve noticed a trend of people and businesses using the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” synonymously. Though most of the time the mixing of terms is not intended to mislead, it can be confusing. In this post, I’m going to try to clear up some of the confusion. I’ll also explain why, while labels can be a useful start in understanding what’s in a food, you should look beyond them to the actual ingredients in what you’re eating.
The Basic Difference Between the Terms “Vegan” and “Plant-Based”
In short, the term “vegan” refers either to (i) a person who has adopted a lifestyle abstaining from eating or using any animal product OR (ii) a food that does not contain any animal product. There is often, though not always, an ethical, social, or environmental component to a vegan person’s motivation for avoiding animal products. In contrast, the term plant-based typically refers to a food or diet (not a person) based primarily on whole or minimally processed plants, and typically (but not always) excluding animal products. Though there are many reasons for adopting such a diet, people who eat primarily-plant-based foods may be concerned exclusively with health, and may choose to use or wear animal products, even though they don’t eat them. People are generally not described as “plant-based,” though they may follow a plant-based diet.
To dig a little deeper, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “vegan” means “a strict vegetarian who consumes no food (such as meat, eggs, or dairy products) that comes from animals; also : one who abstains from using animal products (such as leather).” I personally find this definition confusing, as many vegetarians, known more specifically as ovo-lacto vegetarians, eat some animal products (specifically, dairy and eggs), while abstaining from eating flesh, bones, etc. from any animal. Striking the words “a strict vegetarian” and replacing them with “one,” seems to improve the definition. Though the definition suggests that the term vegan specifically applies to people, it is also commonly used to describe particular foods. Notably, as demonstrated by the Merriam-Webster definition, when used to describe a person (as opposed to a food) the term vegan goes beyond diet to describe the lifestyle choice not to use any animal product, including for clothes. A vegan person typically will not wear leather, wool, fur or silk, and his or her food and lifestyle choices may be based on health, ethical, social, or environmental considerations, or on some combination of considerations.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary does not contain a definition for the phrase “plant-based.” However, applying basic rules of interpretation for compound words, “plant-based” simply means a food item or diet that is based on plants. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, credits himself with creating the term “plant-based” in the early 1980’s, and he defines “whole food, plant-based” as a diet or food made up primarily of minimally or unprocessed whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seeds, without the addition of processed food (including oil) or animal product. As he explains it, he added the “whole food” phrasing in order to “avoid the idea that isolated nutrients . . . and/or plant food fragments . . . conveyed health.”
Not everyone using the term “plant-based” means to adopt Dr. Campbell’s definition and depending on the term’s usage, it is possible for a plant-based meal or diet to incorporate some animal products. Notably, a person who follows a plant-based diet may or may not use (wear) animal products like leather and fur.
Why It Matters
The primary concern I have with the failure to differentiate between these two terms is that while plant-based foods (at least under Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s definition) are almost universally healthy, vegan food is not. And yet many people seem to assume that all vegan food should be considered health food. To be clear, I am not claiming that every plant-based diet is healthy or that all vegan food is unhealthy. It is absolutely possible to eat a plant-based diet that is lacking in key nutrients; but it is difficult to eat a plant-based food that, even if eaten frequently, will cause harm. However, there are numerous vegan foods that should only be eaten in moderation. A few examples include Doritos (certain flavors are vegan), Fritos (certain flavors are vegan), potato chips (many brands are vegan), Twizzlers, most french fries, onion rings, coconut ice cream, coconut creamer, Monster Energy Drink, and Red Bull.
What You Can Do About It
Just being aware of the meaning of the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” puts you in a better position than most. If a food or meal is actually plant-based and not just labeled as such, it probably contains some useful nutrients and not too many harmful additives. In order to determine whether a meal is “plant-based,” ask yourself whether it consists primarily of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seeds, as described above. While it’s easy to assume that because something is vegan it’s healthy, that’s just not the case. Continue to be thoughtful about what you eat and realize that just because a food is lacking in animal products (“vegan”) that doesn’t mean it contains meaningful amounts useful nutrients, or that it doesn’t contain lots of unhealthy additives.
There are several delicious food establishments in Boston that serve vegan comfort food or desserts. I love these places and their food, but I know that the vegan chocolate chip pancakes, drowning in vegan butter and maple syrup, that I order from a vegan diner, and the salted caramel coconut ice cream I order from a dairy free, coconut-cream based ice cream parlour are treats, not health foods to be consumed daily.
Better than worrying about the difference between “vegan” and “plant-based” foods, don’t focus exclusively on labels if your concern is health; focus instead on the actual ingredients in the food. Do you recognize most of the ingredients as food – or do a high number of ingredients seem to be additives like dyes, preservatives, and sweeteners? Where on the list of ingredients does oil fall? If it’s a packaged food, what is the sodium content? How much added sugar is there?
Marketers are smart and they know that eating “plant-based” is popular right now, so you may see the label applied to foods that wouldn’t fit Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s definition, or most recognizable definitions, of the term. And while you should be able to feel safe that a food labeled “vegan” doesn’t contain animal products (other than possibly honey, which could be a separate post in itself), that’s all that the term tells you. The term “vegan” is useful if your goal is to avoid animal products, but less useful in telling you how healthy a food is.
As always when it comes to nutrition and health, here is the bottom line: ask questions, do your research, and use your brain. We could all use a few more plants in our diet – but probably not a few more potato chips.